Not too far from where I live is a beautiful pinon-juniper forest on rugged ground, a place you’d love to hike. But it’s not allowed, because the area in the San Pedro mountains is heavily mined.
No, not the military explosive kind — hardrock mines. They’ve left so many hidden holes in the ground, overgrown since the mining stopped forty years ago, that the area is closed to hikers.
How many abandoned mines are there in America? A federal survey counted 140,000, but Diane McKnight for the University of Colorado, Boulder, says it’s closer to half a million in the Rocky Mountains alone.
Miners in the San Pedros found enough copper, gold and silver in those mountains to keep the industry alive for 137 years. But, what they probably found a lot more of is pyrite, known as “fools’ gold.”
And that’s where a lot of the bad old news starts. Mining turns over a lot of rock and leaves it exposed to wind and weather. When pyrite is exposed to air and water, it forms sulfuric acid, which, in turn, releases other metals from the rock and soil. Dissolved aluminum, cadmium, iron, lead and zinc have been found in the waters of the Snake River in a mining area of Central Colorado for sixty years. Cadmium and lead are considered dangerous enough to human health that the EPA has set maximum standards for contamination and monitors to see they’re not exceeded.
Climate change — hotter and drier weather — seems to be making the problem worse. But even that is old news.
The breaking news is that Garrett Rue, a postdoctoral scientist studying waterways at the University of Colorado’s Institute for Arctic and Alpine Research and Diane McKnight have found measurable levels of REEs, Rare Earth Elements in the waters of the Colorado Snake River.
This could be very bad news, or it could be very good news, but it certainly makes elevated levels of lanthanum, cerium, neodymium, samarium, gadolinium, dysprosium, erbium, ytterbium and yttrium measured directly upstream of a reservoir that provides drinking water to the city of Denver big news.
Elizabeth Miller is a New Mexico-based freelance journalist who writes frequently for NM in Depth. Her article on which this conversation is based was published by Scientific American.
She describes her work as “writing about environmental issues, outdoor sports, and whatever other rabbit holes on science, art, and public health I fall into.”
Miller’s work has won Society of Professional Journalists Top of the Rockies awards for environment, science, and arts reporting and Association of Alternative Newsweeklies awards for investigative and beat reporting. She received a “Next Generation Professional” grant from the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies, and fellowships through the National Press Foundation and the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity. Elizabeth Miller is based in Santa Fe, New Mexico.